It’s a refrain I’ve heard people say many times before: “Web accessibility is just for people with disabilities.” What they tend to leave unsaid is “And that doesn’t affect me so I don’t have to worry about it.” Very often these are people in a position to actually do something about the accessibility of their websites, and should be, if not worrying, at least thinking about web accessibility.
I find this attitude really frustrating. Web accessibility is not just about the 24% of the population identified as having a disability. And it’s certainly not just about blind people using screen readers!
I found myself thinking about how to get people to put themselves in someone else’s shoes. Or at the very least to see that, at various points in our daily lives, most of us can benefit from better web accessibility.
I’ve heard a number of accessibility experts – people whose opinion I respect – talk about accessibility. I’ve heard them talk about how removing barriers for people with different disabilities also makes life easier for people who aren’t similarly disabled. Or about how building accessible websites improves your business and website by improving access and usability for all visitors. I've heard talks about how our perceived relationship with technology changes as we get older, or if we experience a temporary disability like a plaster cast that prevents you from using your regular mouse hand. It's hard to put yourself in a situation you've never experienced. Or maybe you did but once the cast comes off and things are back to normal, you forget all about the experience.
It's easier to empathise with a situation you may have experienced. Temporary limitations or just barriers that make life harder than you needed. I recently had a similar experience — I call it my (in)accessible Friday.
My partner and I are building a house. It’s a process that involves many decisions, most of which need to be made as fast as possible so as not to hold up the builders. So when I got a text message, during a lunchtime walk, telling me there was email from the building company, I jumped onto it straightaway. I opened the email and clicked on the website link to look at the building product and up it popped on my phone’s screen.
It was one of the few really sunny days we’ve had lately. I was wearing my sunglasses which meant that I couldn’t make out much on the screen. I tried cranking up the brightness (I keep mine on the low side to conserve battery life) but there was nothing for it but to remove my sunglasses so I could read the screen. But that didn’t help either. While I could read the blurb on the page, the beige on white text used for all the links and useful information like the phone number was impossible to make out.
Feeling a little annoyed, I tried changing my accessibility settings on my phone to improve the contrast by inverting the colours. That did manage to get rid of the annoying carousel on the page, but black on grey, while pretty, isn’t any easier to read in the sunshine on a little screen. I hurried back to the office.
…if only they had better colour contrast, especially for the navigation and key links at the top of the page.
Back at the office I brought up the website and had a look at the products the building company was recommending. There were a lot to choose from in many different colours and I had many questions. Fortunately they had a video that looked like it would answer them.
Like most modern workplaces, mine is an open plan office. There’s often background noise and my computer isn’t close enough for me to hear the sound without annoying my neighbours. So I plug in my headphones to hear. This isn't a great solution because I’m missing out on auditory information all around me like my phone ringing, the reminder alert about my next meeting, and two of my colleagues who need to talk to me and have to wave their hands in my sightline to get my attention. However, I’d left my headphones at home. So I was really hoping that there were captions for the video. And wouldn’t you know it…there weren’t.
…if only they had provided captions for the video, I could have watched it without sound.
All was not lost yet. I had a brainwave. I’d find an empty meeting room and watch the video on my smartphone. I found a room and brought up the website again. This time while it was still hard to see the words, I knew which links I needed. So I started clicking through to where the video was. At least I tried to.
The links were so close together I kept clicking on the wrong link and ending up on the wrong product page. After the third time clicking the wrong link followed by the back button, I zoomed in and managed to click the link I wanted. But once the page loaded, I had to zoom out again to see where the next link was. And so the whole zoom-in/click/zoom-out exercise was repeated 2 more times.
…if only they had had more white space or a bigger click area for their links.
Finally, I got to the video. I touched the arrow button to start playing the video. Nothing happened. By this time my patience was wearing thin and finally, after the fifth finger jab, the video started playing. I switched into landscape mode so I could see the video but after all that effort the video was really short and didn’t answer any of my questions.
…if only they had provided a transcript for the video, I could have read in advance how the video wasn’t going to answer my questions.
Back at my desk, I looked around for something akin to a FAQ page, sure that my questions were probably just the run of the mill ones everyone asked. I found the page which had a list of questions at the top of the page, helpfully grouped by topic, with links to the answers farther down the page. I clicked on my first question and it moved me down the page.
It took me a while to work out where I was on the page. The question text looked exactly like the answer text, so I had to read the surrounding content to orient myself and find the question I’d just clicked on.
…if only they had marked up the questions as headings, I could have found them and the accompanying answers more easily.
Eventually I found the question and, more importantly, the answer. Then I went looking for the next question on my list. It was slow going, and I was getting some answers, but then my phone rang. After I hung up, I had to relocate my place on the page. The headings that grouped related content at the top of the page, weren't available in the actual content.
…if only they had used the grouped content headings to allow me to scan the page.
Of course, there were other distractions and in the end it was so hard to get the answers I needed that I just rang their 0800 number. The recorded phone message told me that I’d called outside their business hours and helpfully suggested that I check out their website where they had lots of information about their products, videos and answers to commonly asked questions.